What is good and what is evil? Scholars, theologians, philosophers, and the common man have asked these questions for years. Such questions were relevant 2,000 years ago and remain just as relevant today. To properly formulate a coherent response to these questions, this article will be examining the writings of modern day thinkers and thinkers of old, as we search for the answers to these questions. Does good exist? Does evil exist? Moreover, if either one of them exists, are their classifications binary with no middle ground, or are there shades of gray in between? In this article, we will pull from various sources including modern day scientist, philosophy thinkers, university professors, and Bible scholars. Ultimately this article will not tell you what to think; but it will present a firm conclusion based on the evidence presented. The hope is that you too will conclude with a likewise powerful and articulatable answer to these questions.
When formulating any position, there are always assumptions that must be acknowledged. To assume that we can ever start from the point of absolute objectivity, clear of 100% of all assumptions, is at best intellectual laziness, and at worst a purposeful act to mislead. As a result, we will list three assumptions that this article will rest on. Making an assumption something does not mean that one is wrong, it just means that for the sake of argument, time, and perhaps an inability to definitively prove something; one builds a case on certain pillars, proposing them to be true from the beginning. In experimenting, a scientist must assume that their instruments are accurate, and in predicting the stock market, financial investors must assume that their speculations and formulas can be trusted. However; arguments built on the rock of true assumptions will hold up to the scrutiny of time and critical analysis, but arguments built on the sands of false assumptions will crumble. Jesus said in Matthew 7:24-27 “Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.” With that said, there are three rock solid assumptions that this article will stand on.
Assumption #1: The God of the Bible Exist
The first assumption of this article is that the God of the Holy Bible exists and has revealed Himself to us through Jesus His son. Rene Descartes, a French philosopher, mathematician, and professing Catholic of the 16th century is quoted with the phrase, “I Think Therefore I am”. Stephanie Anglin from the Psychology department of Rutgers University in New Jersey states, “Descartes is credited for establishing the modern dualist perspective…Descartes’ dualism is compatible with the existence of immortal souls, in that immaterial substances can exist independently from the material world, according to this perspective” (Anglin, 2014, p. 105). Descartes’ statement of “I think therefore I am” as explained by Anglin, endorses the position that existence(…therefore I am) or one's source of life, does not come from the body, but from some deeper state of being. In the Holy Bible, God identifies Himself as “I AM”. When Moses asked God how he should identify God to the Israelites, God tells Moses to tell the Israelites that “I AM has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14, NIV).
Simply put, this article comes from the assumption that there must be a source of all life, the original Big Banger. But one who is capable of not only creating matter but also capable of creating the mind. A mind though expressed in the brain and its neuro-networks, is not itself made of molecules but found in our inner self to which Descartes alludes. Even though we can see the results of our mind’s processes through a scan of our brain, the brain itself is not our mind no more than your heart that pumps blood is the source of love or your adrenal gland that pumps adrenaline is the source of your fears. We therefore conclude that these expressions are simply a physical representation of a deeper reality beyond the world of matter and particulars.
According to the Bible, John 1:3 states, “All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made”. Also, Genesis 1:26 names God as this creator, stating, “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image…’” Thereby indicating that this image(of God) among other things, speaks to the fact that God has a mind and we likewise, created in His image, also have minds. As Descartes states, our minds are capable of thinking, and thoughts point to the existence on an immaterial mind not based on molecular matter. Therefore, the human mind should not be equated simply to processes such as a computer. Though computers can handle intricate calculations very quickly and solve complex algorithms, their intelligence at best is still labeled artificial. Bible scholars would assert that this is because we are created in God’s image, and we in turn are creating computers in our image. Such is the assertion of Noreen L. Herzfeld of the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University in her paper titled, “Creating in Our Own Image: Artificial Intelligence and the Image of God” (Herzfeld, 2002).
Presented with these formulations above, the first assumption of this article is that God, our creator, exist. This is the same creator explicitly acknowledged by the founders of the American Declaration of independence(“Endowed by our creator with inalienable rights”), on our money (“In God we trust”), and the same creator God that our pledge of allegiance acknowledges(“One nation under God”).
Assumption #2: Truth exists
Truth exists and to some degree facets of this truth can be known. This is the second assumption that this article stands on. Some may contend that truth is something to be personalized and even privatized. However, Daniel Patrick “Pat” Moynihan, an American politician and sociologist, who served in four presidential administrations from John F. Kennedy’s administration to Gerald Ford is quoted as saying, “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” In a world of “alternative facts” and moral relativism, it is important to define the word truth. Truth, as defined by Merriam-Webster is, “that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality”. It is noted that the definition of truth does not make any reference to one’s feelings, opinions, or one’s preferences. Though feelings, opinions, and preferences are very important because they flavor our unique personalities, these three concepts do not determine what truth is. As defined, truth transcends the feelings of humanity which are constantly changing and unreliable; and truth transcends the opinions and preferences of humankind which are based on our individual experiences and our individual biases.
To illustrate this point, when you go to the doctor’s office to determine if you are positive or negative for a certain diagnosis, you don’t want the results to be based on the doctor’s feelings, preferences, or opinions. Thus you want the result to be the same regardless of which doctor you are seeing. You want an objective response. What you want is the truth. As a result of what has previously been shared, the 2nd assumption of this article is that truth exists, and to some degree, it can be known.
Assumption #3: Logic is a path to Truth
The final assumption of this article is that rational and logical thinking is a pathway to truth. This is not to say that truth and logic are the same things, but that in general when seeking truth, a path of logic will lead one there quicker than a non-logical one. In the Holy Bible Jesus is referred to as The Word or the Word of God. The original Greek word used is Logos, which is the root for our English word logic. This means that Jesus is presented as the word of God, thus logic incarnate. Theologians contend that this is why Jesus never lost an argument because He was always able to present things from the transcendent perspective of God in which pure logic and reason dwell. In our modern world today, whether it is a political debate to the point of information, or a persuasive appeal to the point of value, the path to truth seems always to be endorsed by an appeal to logic and rational thought. As a result, this article assumes that we can get to the truth by using a sound approach.
Besides truth, there are other definitions that we need to define to allow for a point of reference for every reader reading this article. These words are the words good, evil, and morality. The word evil is defined as “wicked, bad, wrong, immoral, sinful, corrupt, depraved, reprobate, iniquity, profoundly immoral and malevolent”. Good will be defined as, “that which is morally right, righteousness, the absence of evil”. Finally, morality is defined in the dictionary as “Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior”. In summary, evil has to do with that which is wicked, and that which is good has no evil in it. Finally, morality is the system in which we bifurcate and make the distinctions between those behaviors to determine which is right and wrong, or good and evil.
Is there Evil in the world?
With assumptions acknowledged and definitions defined, we finally behind our exploration by asking the question, “Is there evil in the world?” Looking at our world, there are news stories that many would point to reference examples of evil. Secular(nonreligious) researchers are also studying the concept of evil. Phillip G. Zimbardo, psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University, states “I devoted many years of my professional career to understanding the nature of evil, under what conditions do ordinary people cross the line between good and evil to behave in ways that violate moral conscience” (Zimbardo, 2017, p.92). Zimbardo wrote the book titled, The Lucifer Effect based on his controversial electric shock experiments that looked deep into the heart exploring the nature and source of evil within us.
Moreover, John the Baptist writes in the Book of John found in the Holy Bible in chapter 3 verse 19, “And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil”. Furthermore, George L. Murphy a Ph.D. in physics from John Hopkins and a Masters of Divinity from Wartburg Seminary makes the distinction between natural evil and moral evil. Dr. Murphy bifurcates evil into two categories, natural evil resulting from natural disasters, earthquakes, and freak accidents, and moral evil such as a human agent choosing to do an evil act (Murphy, 2016).
Whether you are looking to the Holy Bible or the science of humanity, there is a consensus that evil exist in our world. An argument could be made that if there were no evil in this world, there would not be so much talk about love, goodness, and peace. However; since evil exists, there is much talk about these things. For the mind that seems to hesitant to label things as evil, Ravi Zacharias, an India born philosopher and Christian Apologetic is quoted as saying, “The denial of an objective moral law, based on the compulsion to deny the existence of God, results ultimately in the denial of evil itself.”
One man’s Evil is another’s Good: a matter of Truth
Though the evidence shows that seemingly all people would agree that evil exists in this world, there is less of a consensus on what falls neatly into the category of evil(Stankov & Lee,2016). For example, is it evil to steal if it means surviving? Is abortion evil if a mother asserts that since the baby is in her body, the moral decision should be based on her preference? What about the preferences of the father who has 50% ownership of that child? Is smoking marijuana bad or evil if one holds the opinion that it is good for them? Is it wrong for a man to have sex with another man though he feels it is right? All of these questions could have different answers based on whom you asked, which is why we much use truth in evaluating what is good and what is evil.
In their work titled, “Double-Effect Reasoning In Paradise Lost: An Investigation Into Milton’s God’s Will In Humankind’s Fall”, Jafar Mirzaee Porkoli and Mohammad-Javad Haj’jari speak of a term called the Double-Effect Reasoning. They explain this Rule of Double Effect by saying that it “is an ethical principle in justifying the permissibility of an action which causes serious harms, such as the death of a human being as a side effect of achieving a good end. In other words, sometimes it is legible to cause evil as a predictable side effect or “double effect” in bringing about goodness, although it is not permitted to cause evil deliberately as a tool to bring about goodness” (Porkoli & Haj’jari, 2016, p.70). In the religious works of the early founders of the church, Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theological (II-IIq.64a.7) and St. Augustine in, On the Free Choice of the Will, differed on the issue of whether it was right to kill in self-defense. Aquinas stated it was ok, but to the contrary, St Augustine wrote, “One’s own life among the slight goods that men ought to forfeit rather than kill” (Porkoli & Haj’jari, 2016, p.71). This points to the fact that though we may agree that evil exists, we do not all agree on what exactly is evil. Which is why need to look at truth to distinguish between good and evil.
As previously defined, the truth is not a matter of opinion, preferences, or feelings. It remains the same regardless of where you take it and whom you take it to, though the presentation and delivery methods may change. That is why when politicians change the “truth” or the core of their message based on the audience in front of them, we state that they are lying. The truth should be seen as a superhero like Superman. With a closet full of the same outfit, He remains constant regardless of the changing fashion trends (opinions, feelings, and preferences).
Classifying Evil: who is telling the truth?
Understanding that we all likely have different categories of evil, this should further point us to the need for truth. Once again, we should be reminded that one of the assumptions of this article is that truth exists and is endorsed by a logical path. For many, there is a great pull within their minds at this very moment to pull towards a world view of moral relativism. This pull towards moral relativism may manifest itself in thoughts of the mind that asks, “why do you have to be right?”, “that may be true for you but it is not true for me”, and “everyone thinks they know the truth, so how can we ever know what’s true”? All of these thoughts pull upon one’s mind, resisting the concept that there can be a hard line between good and evil. At this point, one must resist the pull towards moral relativism in which they move from a foundation grounded in an objective truth to a personalized truth owned by an individual, or a privatized truth owned by a group.
So who should we trust when it comes to the truth? Simply put, no one. It must be God. If you start with the assumption that God exist because mankind must have been created by something greater than us, and if you start with the assumption that truth exists and can be known through a logical path, then it reasons to stand as fact that God knows the truth because only God stands from a position of absolute moral objectivity. We should remember that truth as Webster defines is not a concept that is created by a majority vote or something that can be appointed by the process of a committee.
How do you know it’s true?: A matter of consequences
The truth is made evident in its consequences. People can claim that this is true for you and something else is true for me; however, although one may propose a concept to be true, the mere proposition of that claim as truth does not in and of itself make it true unless it is endorsed by our objective reality. For example, imagine a person who argues that gravity does not exist. Well, if this person who claims gravity is not true were to walk off a cliff, regardless of their belief, the consequences of objective reality would endorse that fact that gravity does exist, evidenced by the person falling off the cliff.
Only a genuinely objective source can decide
The examination of truth requires an objective source that is always constant and never changing. Such a source should be one that transcends the human experience because our human experience holds us in bondage from fully knowing the truth due to our opinions, preferences, and feelings. The path of logic leads us to conclude that only God is capable of deciding good and evil because God is the only objective source and is the only one that will be enforcing the consequences in the very end. Ivan Karmazov, a Russian philosopher is quoted as saying, “If God does not exist, then everything is permissible”. Meaning without God, we would have no motivation to be moral because ultimately only God can claim to be able to judge all of humanity to enforce His moral law. As the late rapper and social activist Tupac Shakur is quoted as saying, “Only God can judge me”.
In agreement, Christian theology proposes that God alone is the ultimate judge. Just as a citizen can tell himself what he thinks the laws are, ultimately when he is standing before the judge in court, what he thinks means nothing; it is entirely a matter of what the judge knows to be the laws that counts. Furthermore, the Bible states that we will all stand before God. Hebrews 9:27 says, “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” From this one is to infer that God decides what is good and what is evil because He is the only one capable of being 100% objective. Since He created us, He will be the one that will enforce the consequences. Christians quote the Bible verse that says, “Be not deceived: God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap” (Galatian 6:7, KJV)
From His objective and transcendent perspective, Christians claim that God shows us what is good and what is evil in the Holy Bible, and we find the perfect picture of God Himself by reading about the life of Jesus in the Bible. If this is the case, how then should we interpret the fact that we live in a world where many are uncomfortable naming evil. One possible logical conclusion is that acknowledging evil often leads to a discussion that brings in the concept of good and then the idea of God. However many don’t want to talk about God. When God is brought into a discussion, He often must be acknowledged as being the judge and the king in charge. Yet the evil that secular and religious thinkers have acknowledged resides within our hearts, desire for us to be our own king. Therefore in our world, it is plausible to conclude that this is why people have a tendency to lean to the position that everyone must determine for themselves what is good (Gluchman, 2013 & Carlson 2016). Interestingly, Judges 21:25 states, “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” Therefore Christian theology asserts that right and wrong as defined is a matter of doing what is right in God’s eyes, not the eyes of man.
As we review the questions does good exist, does evil exist, and is there a binary path to morality, the answers become clearer. Does good exist? Yes it does, but our own observations indicate that none of us are entirely good all of the time. Does evil exist? According to scientist and religious scholars, it certainly does, but everyone has a different classification of what is right and wrong from them. Therefore we should not seek to discover good and evil in the context of our feelings, opinions, or preferences; because in doing so, we lose the guarantee of a fully objective conclusion. Instead, the path of reason and logic instructs us to look to God, the only truly objective and transcendent source. The Christian narrative as presented in the Holy Bible presents the idea that Jesus is the only path by which we can know God. Over 2,000 years of history it has stood the test of critical analysis and intense scrutiny better than any other claim to truth evidenced by being the world’s largest religion.
Conclusion: The Binary Bifurcation
In concluding that only God holds the truth, the path of morality ends up being bifurcated into a binary choice. Things are either good or evil, they are either God’s way or they are the wrong way. The Holy Bible states that God gives no luxury to indulge in shades of gray when it pertains to morality. For in the end, the Bible proposes that it is either heaven or hell, there are no other 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th or 8th options. The Book of Revelations states that those who try to straddle the fence by creating for themselves classifications or gradients of good and evil(Webster & Saucier, 2017), will find themselves abruptly moved by God into one category or the other. Unfortunately for many who try to straddle, the Bible claims that God ends up putting them in the category of evil. John states in Revelation 3:16 “So, because you are lukewarm--neither hot nor cold--I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” The Bible claims that things labeled as good may be numerous as Jeremiah 29:11 reads, I know the plans I have for you meaning multiple plans not a singular plan. Furthermore James 1:17 says every good and perfect gift comes from above(God). Yet still given the idea that many things are encompassed in the classification of good, it still reverts to the binary conclusion that God must be the one that calls it so(good) or else it is bad or evil.
Conclusion: Jesus the X Factor
Jesus Himself illustrated a binary choice as He spoke of the board road that leads to destruction and the narrow road that leads to life. Jesus spoke of no middle routes. He later revealed before His death that He was the way, the truth, and the life; and that nobody could come to God the Father except through Him (John 14:6) . Thinking logically, if this is the verdict, a binary one with only two options(heaven or hell, Jesus or all others) that awaits us when we die, wouldn’t it seem prudent to live that way now? Is it possible one day to stand before God professing that Jesus is the only truth while living now as if there are many options or paths to truth? The evidence indicates that the only way in which one can reject the exclusive claim to truth proposed by Jesus in the Holy Bible would be by doing away with the assumptions that God exist, trust exists, and that truth is endorsed by rational thought. However, in doing away with these three assumptions one would be building an argument claiming truth, while denying God, denying trust exists, and denying rational thought itself. Such an argument at best would lack any plausibly articulatable coherence; and at worst would be an embarrassingly failed attempt in intellectual gymnastics. One where intellectual backflips and somersaults would be required upon critical scrutiny and examination of their claims, leading to the arguer falling and breaking their neck, metaphorical speaking, as they find that there is no rock solid ground but shifting sands on which their argument stands. In denying truth, such an argument would need to be constructed on opinions, preferences, and feelings. Such an argument would deny rational thought and require irrational interpretation of the facts thereby reaching wrong conclusions. By denying God, such argument would require the writer themselves to stand in the judgement seat of God, by which they would have the audacity to claim truth(while denying truth exist) for the whole world.
The logical conclusion of the mind
How then shall we conclude? Do we close by asking, when is comes to good and evil, where do you stand? Or does the evidence and logical interpretation of it speak for itself? Is the question of whether truth can be found on the solid rock of Jesus for which there is only one, or the shifting sands of personal human feelings, opinions, and preferences, for which there are over 7 billion to pick from, one that even needs to be asked? Personally everyone must choose wisely because as gravity teaches us, the truth will be made evident the by consequences that follow. Christian theology states that those who get to know Jesus now will know Him as Savior, but those who reject him by entertaining some position in which they assert to some other “truth” on the same level as Jesus, will be introduced to Him when they die as their judge. In closing, logic and truth compels the rational human mind to conclude that good and evil is a binary choice which is bifurcated with Jesus in one category and all else in the other. However, the Holy Bible proposes that acknowledging our sinfulness is the first step to receiving forgiveness and being made justified. Justification, meaning just as if we never sinned(or did anything evil) before God. In repenting and putting our faith in Jesus, the Bible offers the only rational path by which we can leave the category of evil and ultimately join Jesus in the category of good.
Anglin, S. M. (2014). I think, therefore I am? Examining conceptions of the self, soul, and mind. Consciousness And Cognition, 29105-116. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2014.08.014
Exodus 3:14 . The Holy Bible (New International Version): “God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.'"
Carlson, E. (2016). 'Good' in Terms of 'Better'. Nous, 50(1), 213-223. doi:10.1111/nous.12061
Gluchman, V. (2013). Morality : Reasoning on Different Approaches. Amsterdam: Brill Academic Publishers.
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ZIMBARDO, P. G. (2017). FROM THE STUDY OF EVIL TO PROMOTING HEROISM. Ceskoslovenska Psychologie, 61(1), 90-96.